Thursday, February 21, 2008

What I'm Reading...Frank Schaeffer

Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back, Frank Schaeffer's memoir of life growing up in a family of fundamentalist "stars" describes a wild ride through the tumultuous world of cultural and religious change in the second half of the twentieth century. Schaeffer's parents were Francis and Edith Schaeffer, heroes to many evangelicals, who themselves lived out the stormy history of conservative American Christianity in the 20th century--from fundamentalism to schismatic fundamentalism, to a more culturally-aware and accepting evangelicalism, to political activism.

Schaeffer as a writer is, by turns, affecting, irritating, stimulating, and arrogant and distasteful. I found the memoirs of his childhood the more engaging and enlightening parts of the book, as he reveals his enormous respect and admiration for his gifted parents, while at the same time shamelessly exposing their foibles, blind spots, and eccentricities. The Schaeffer family must surely have been a "crazy-making" clan, especially when you consider how the "Work" (with a capital "w") grew in the midst of the turbulent, mind-blowing '60s and '70s. Franky grew up for the most part on his own through all of this and had to figure it out with little serious parental guidance.

The result of his well-earned insights is mixed bag. I've always considered the younger Schaeffer to be something of a smart aleck--mean-spirited and full of himself and his own opinions. To his credit, he owns up to that, especially when he traces the downward spiral of his adult life and career from evangelical wunderkind to failed filmmaker stealing from his local grocery. But that doesn't stop him from being brutally blunt in his frequent assessments and attacks on others. And he still has the annoying adolescent tendency to throw sexual comments around merely for shock value. Though I share his disdain for what evangelical Christianity has become in America, at times his vitriol comes across like a tantrum or bad dialogue from one of his "B" movies.

However, Frank Schaeffer does demonstrate that he has a genuinely wistful side, able to look at self and experience and an assortment of people in his life with more generous eyes. Descriptions of his mother, Edith Schaeffer, for example, are nuanced and complex, and the picture he paints of her as an elderly dancer is as lovely and heartbreaking as life gets.

Recommended, but watch out for the occasional craziness.

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